cities power public policy social justice

Hope in a time of crisis

Today, in the middle of an accelerating crisis, some of us are publishing a book about hope. You could call it unfortunate timing. You could also call it the best time.

The crisis is obvious but merits a quick scan. First, we’re caught in a global pandemic that, outside the bubble of British media attention, is worsening. Second, we face an economic crisis characterised by the failure of the economy of consumption and the gross undervaluing of the economy of care. Third – and potentially most damaging – is a crisis of climate heating illustrated, but by no means summarised, by the recent 38 degree heatwave in the Siberian Arctic. Fourth, and intertwined with the others, is a crisis of social justice exemplified most starkly by Black Lives Matter. 

Against that backdrop the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, is making a speech today outlining his recipe for economic recovery. It can be summarised as concrete, cars and incarceration: more money for building programmes, roads and prisons, channeled as ever via the bank accounts of big construction companies with so-called ‘shovel-ready’ schemes that are as quick on delivery as they are slow on wisdom. 

Wisdom and reflection are hard to find in government at present. Instead we must put up with cod-Churchillian tub-thumping and promises of a post-Brexit nirvana of gilded British exceptionalism. 

But in a world invisibly swirling in the vortices of climate change and viral spread there are no more exceptions. We need a hope and a change that is more determined and directed than any of Boris Johnson’s rhetorical flourishes. It is a hope that stands against as well as standing for and standing with. 

To hope in today’s world, we have to stand against the injustices that turn our cities into scenes of hunger and homelessness. We have to stand for a way of living that is kind to our planet and to other people in a climate-changed world, which requires a sober rethinking of our economic models. And we have to stand with those who are caught in the middle, impoverished by current economics and power relationships but afraid of risking the little they have. 

There are no easy answers to this mess and those who offer simple solutions are least to be trusted. But hope is messy too: it infiltrates the most unpromising territories and messes with the joyless despair that sees no better future than roads and prisons. 

Today Anthem Press is publishing Urban Crisis, Urban Hope, a collection of short essays that I and Rowland Atkinson commissioned over the last year from a range of people whose practical and academic perspectives address the crisis and potential for hope in our cities. We focus on cities in particular because cities are the crucible from which the key decisions and behaviours that guide our world emerge, and they are where those who are disadvantaged and diminished by current decisions and behaviours are most frequently found.

We address key issues that permeate our urban fabric – hunger, unaffordable housing, anxiety, violence, a degraded environment and exclusion from decision-making. On each issue our contributors offer practical, implementable policy ideas that could make a real difference soon. We are not promising an easier or less worrying future, but we do believe it can and must be fairer. And by making it fairer we will be better placed to face the long term challenges of climate change, economic restructuring and public health. 

We have brought together just over 50 ideas for better cities that you can download here. They could be steps on the way to real change. 

We’d love to engage in wider discussions about the ideas in this book, so please get in touch if you’d like to know more or want to arrange an event. 

By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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